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Tech issues kept mainly offstage in campaign 2000
Debate gaff over e-mail hoax raises red flag for some
(CNN) -- If the last presidential debate was any indication, Wednesday's event likely won't feature many questions related to technology, leaving some political observers to wonder whether it has been given enough prominence and whether the candidates understand all the issues.
Jonah Seiger, co-founder of Mindshare Internet Campaigns, a consulting group for online political strategies, said there is a varied level of understanding of Internet issues among candidates in the 2000 elections. But more politicos are tech-savvy than in 1996.
"Internet policy issues are playing more of a significant role in the economy. In that context, more campaigns are paying close attention to the Internet," Seiger said.
Seiger serves as strategy manager for Web White and Blue, a consortium of large general and news Internet sites, including CNN.com, that is hosting a continuous online debate among presidential candidates.
Five White House contenders, including George Bush and Al Gore, regularly post political salvos and rebuttals, whether text, video or sound files.
Besides the Democratic and Republican candidates, the Natural Law, Reform and Constitutional parties have weighed in on the site.
"Now with more candidates familiar with the Internet, as users themselves, they are seeing ways to use it in their campaigns," Seiger said.
On their Web sites, Gore and Bush profess to do all in their power to ensure the growth of the Internet. Each pledges to continue a moratorium on e-commerce taxation and to give more children, particularly poor ones, access to the Internet.
Gore, who still draws snickers for once proclaiming himself the creator of the Internet, has pushed for years as a Washington politician to expand the World Wide Web.
His Web site is filled with terms like "cyberspace economies," "information technologies" and the "Electronic Bill of Rights."
Bush's site, on the other hand, uses vaguer terms like "new economy" and has fewer specifics on Internet policy.
"Gore has always said the Internet is changing the way we learn, work and do business," said Gore campaign spokesman Dagoberto Vega.
"His attention to the digital divide clearly shows he is focused on the Internet. I think Governor Bush has not outlined a clear policy for bridging the digital divide," Vega said.
Despite repeated attempts, the Bush campaign could not be reached for comment.
Still, more understanding does not necessarily translate into better policy, according to Shari Steele, director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties organization that works on high-tech issues. Politicians in the past have been hesitant to regulate the Internet, in part because of their lack of understanding.
But as they become even slightly familiar with the new medium, "they think they understand it and come in ready to regulate," she said.
Industry groups weigh in
Any mention of regulation on the Internet often makes industry officials nervous, so two groups representing high-tech companies recommend that politicians follow their lead of keeping e-commerce relatively free from strict policies while still balancing privacy concerns.
And although there is a varied level of understanding among politicians, they must do whatever they can to familiarize themselves with key issues that will affect consumers and keep the Internet as a top priority, the groups said.
"As the Internet becomes more popular, politicians need to be paying attention ... especially to issues that will affect policy changes," said Tinabeth Burton, a spokeswoman for the Arlington, Virginia-based Information Technology Association of America. The association represents more than 25,000 members including America Online Inc., International Business Machines Inc., Microsoft and Oracle.
Burton said both the Republican and Democratic parties have shown an interest in technology issues, but they must always be ready to delve deeper into the often complex topics.
"Politicians need to have the ability and the willingness to listen to industry and take input when appropriate," said Burton, adding that industry has been a driving force in making the Internet what it is today.
Margaret Lauderback, vice president of membership at Palo Alto, California-based TechNet, a bipartisan organization that advocates for the tech industry, said she believes the politicians making the high-level decisions are fairly well equipped to understand the subject matter. TechNet has members from companies that include Cisco Systems Inc., Intel Inc. and Amazon.com.
"There's so many issues involved with technology that it's up to us as an industry to educate them," she said. "The people on the committees that address these issues tend to have a deeper understanding."
Lauderback, who has lobbied government in the past, said elected officials are typically enamored with technology, partly because of its positive impact on the economy.
"They want to make sure they don't kill the goose that lays the golden eggs," she said.
E-mail tax hoax leaves some wondering
During Sunday's New York senate debate, neither GOP Rep. Rick Lazio nor first lady Hillary Clinton, his opponent for a New York Senate seat, detected the ruse regarding "House Bill 602-P," which purports to place a 5 cent tax on individual e-mails.
The bogus bill has circulated on the Internet for years, prompting some members of Congress to post warnings about it to soothe the fears of anxious constituents.
Some analysts don't think their gaff was a big deal.
"It probably falls more on the person who asked the question to understand that it was bogus," said Jonah Seiger, co-founder of Mindshare Internet Campaigns, a consulting group for online political strategies.
Rep. Anthony Weiner of Brooklyn held a different opinion, at least regarding his fellow New York congressman:
"There's no way Rick Lazio should have not known. No one even keeping a tangential eye on their mail would not have known about it."
Lazio spokesman Dan McLagan said the congressman was responding to the general question of Internet taxation and added that Wiener was serving as a "political hatchet man" for Clinton.
In response to the debate question, both candidates said they opposed Internet taxation. Clinton also said that she was unfamiliar with House Bill 602-P (congressional legislation does not end in letters), while Lazio referred to it as an example of excessive government intrusion.
CNN's Bill Schneider: Bush, Gore face tests in debate
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